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She was 55 years old going into the third year of the world-wide pandemic. She worried about plenty of things but cancer was never one of them. In Her family, it was all heart disease and stroke. Everyone in Her family except her adopted brother were on meds for high blood pressure. That was real. She'd watched her Father's health deteriorate from multiple strokes until it ultimately took Him in his 70s. That was tangible. Cancer, She never worried about.
She made annual visits to the gynecologist because they wouldn't refill Her estrogen otherwise. "I'm putting in an order for your mammogram," the Doctor would say, tapping away on her little laptop computer. The next day, someone from the Women's Pavilion would call Her to schedule. A "pavilion" sounds like someplace you might win a prize, or at least a door prize, but it was just a building.
Don't fall for stock photography depicting mammograms where a woman undressed from the waist up is standing erect in front of the machine. That's nothing like the actual experience. Once Her breast was placed on the shelf, She would have to turn one shoulder in and the other out, leaning into the machine until Her face, head turned to the side, was mashed into the machine. Lean in, but don't lean over. Relax your shoulders. And while She was twisted into this awkward and unnatural position, they would lower the second shelf until Her breast was painfully and thoroughly squashed. The Tech would go behind her divider and say, "Don't breathe" and She held Her breath while the machine squished even tighter for 3...2...1...and then the Tech released the vise and told Her to breathe. Multiple images and positions were taken this way and then the whole thing was repeated on the other breast.
The experience left Her sore and with red marks all across Her chest that would last for half the day, but She left feeling smug knowing that She had done the right thing and wouldn't have to repeat the tortuous exercise for another year.
But then the Nurse called. Some new spots...weren't there last year...better just check them out. She'd been told before that She had "fibrous tissue" and She wasn't sure exactly what that meant but a Doctor had once told Her upon completing a breast exam that Her breasts felt like bags of frozen peas. That She could comprehend because everyone knows what frozen peas feel like. They scheduled an ultrasound so the Radiologist could see better what the spots were.
An ultrasound showing you pictures of your unborn child is pretty cool but after that, the test becomes decreasingly exciting the older you get. The Tech snapped some images on the monitor that She couldn't see, then the Radiologist came in and looked at the screen, then took a live look with the scanner wand then told Her a biopsy would be in order. Just a needle...right here in the office...local anesthesia.
The biopsy was completed Dec. 30. "It usually takes 3-5 working days to get the results," the Nurse said. "But this is a holiday weekend." So She prepared to wait, finally understanding Schrodinger's cat, both having cancer and not having cancer now. Waiting to open the box.
January 3. That was fast. She thought with the holiday weekend it would have taken longer. But the whole world seemed eager for Her to know. "Irregular cells," the Radiologist said, breaking the news so gently She wasn't even sure She had cancer. "Tiny tumors...but they have to come out...we're lucky to find it so early...this is why we do mammograms."
(She would repeat those words oh, so many times in the coming weeks.)
"We'll send a referral to the Surgeon."
First the Surgeon needed Her to have a breast MRI. There is a whole world of things not to love about MRIs - the ear-shattering noise it makes, for one - but this one was particularly bad. It left Her with bruised ribs that hurt just to breathe for weeks.
January 10. In the Surgeon's exam room. She considered asking for a cotton pink gown of Her own so She could just show up at these appointments undressed from the waist-up. She sat in the chair trying to comprehend what the Surgeon was saying: "So that's why we can't do a lumpectomy..."
Did she just say...?
Are they going to...?
In just seven days She'd gone from "You have very small tumors that need to be removed" to "You're losing your breasts."
It was the first time She'd cried, sitting in that Surgeon's exam room. The other news had slithered in slowly and insidiously, but this came out of nowhere and knocked Her off Her feet.
The Nurse came in and give Her a handful of pink ribbon buttons and wristbands. Turns out there were door prizes after all.
She made notes in Her binder (because by now She has a binder) of all the benefits. Benefits? Well, up-sides anyway:
Least chance of recurrence possible (no breast tissue)
New pair of breasts in the size of Her choice
No more mammograms (no breast tissue)
New implant-only breasts will not sag with age or be affected by weight gain. C-cup forever.
Nipples tattooed on mean never having to wear a bra again if She doesn't want to
We caught it early!
The tumors are non-invasive!
This is why we do mammograms!
She became adept at listing them off as She told friends and family Her news. Everyone said, "You're doing great! I can tell!"
After another week, Everyone started asking, "How are you doing...mentally?"
She had no idea how to answer that.
Her truth was, it feels like it's all been a dream when She first wakes up in the morning. As reality slowly seeps in, She becomes more awake and realizes, "Oh, no...this is happening. To me."
But that's not the kind of thing She wanted to tell Everyone.
Her truth was, She's scared. Scared of general anesthesia and stitches and drains and bandages and PAIN. "When you cut into me, doesn't all my blood come out?" She asked the Surgeon.
But She didn't want to tell everyone that.
Her truth was, She'd kept so busy with lists and paperwork and doctor's bills and planning that She hadn't checked in to see how She was mentally. And frankly, She was in no hurry to do so. No sense poking that bear.
"You internalize everything," Her Husband said. "I don't even know what that means," She replied. "You keep everything inside." Her Husband favored support groups. She couldn't imagine sharing Her story to a roomful of strangers. Pretty much the definition of internalizing everything.
"Please use representative and accurate language," said the Psychologist, after She'd twice made reference to having Her boobs cut off. The Psychologist was all about the data She was feeding her head. Especially since She internalized everything, which meant it would bounce around eternally on reverb in there.
So She started calling it Her Super Cool Boob Job. Out with the old and in with the new. Factory fresh.
And while She was feeling scared and like none of this was real, the comments, messages, texts, emails, calls, cards and gifts rolled in. And the internalizer was more comforted by them than She could have ever imagined being.
Her truth was, when Bloggers and Celebrities posted about mental health and assured us that "depression lies" and that none of us are really alone, She used to think, "Easy for you to say, with your 1.5 million instagram followers."
She honestly thought Herself rather alone. Until the comments and messages, texts, emails and cards and gifts started rolling in. And then She felt so loved and supported and that bolstered Her. Every single message was valued and appreciated and contributed to Her peace of mind.
And as the surgery date grew nearer, the comments and messages, texts, emails and cards and gifts increased, offsetting the escalating anxiety that grew with each ticking moment. And She clung to that lifeline of support.
Now if you listen closely
I'll tell you what I know
Storm clouds are gathering
The wind is gonna blow
The race of man is suffering
And I can hear the moan,
Can make it out here alone.
- Maya Angelou, Alone
This is Her story. And now I am claiming it as my own.